PART ONE

B. T. Bombers in St. Paul’s Frogtown is part boxing gym, part community center

By MATT PEIKEN

St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 26, 2001©

Carley Pesente walks into B.T. Bombers boxing gym wearing a ratty white T-shirt with black letters that read, “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.”

She sits on a bench, pulls off her jeans and marches barefoot in her gray underwear past a half-dozen huffing, sweating guys to the gym’s phone booth of a bathroom. She emerges moments later in a workout bra, exposing beefy upper arms, each tattooed with an image of a busty, leggy cowgirl. Carley is wearing gold-and-black trunks proclaiming her “The Hammer.”

Outside, it’s a muggy August afternoon in the high 80s, but it’s like a winter reprieve against the air on the other side of the battered front door, where sweat and gusts of exhaled breath cook inside the gym’s cinder-block walls.

B.T. Bombers is a gray, low-slung box in the heart of St. Paul’s Frogtown — the type of building symbolic of blight in a neighborhood that’s long known about need, neglect and judgment. The people who come here are baby-faced teen-age boys, a few scrappy girls who like slapping at punching bags, young black men holding onto grunt jobs and dreams of high-money prizefights, and middle-agers striving for a little peace and purpose.

There’s Cerresso Fort, a 15-year-old who lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his grandmother Pearl, who has become the gym’s godmother. There’s Cornell Harris, a tireless coach who on many nights locks up the gym from the inside and sleeps on mats spread along the thin carpet. And there’s Carley, a 6-foot-tall hockey and football player who is 38 and wears her sexuality like an old coat but can’t come to terms with her son, now a teen-ager, whom she left back home in Connecticut.

Clem Tucker, a barrel-bodied retired St. Paul police officer, opened Bombers in 1989.

“Hey Carley, how they hangin’ today?” Clem asks.

The gym is filled with the sound of leather gloves smacking leather bags and the heavy thump of the boom box, perpetually spinning rap music. Carley is pawing at the speed bag, trying to work up a three-beat rhythm with each gloved hand, but can’t find the groove. She throws a haymaker of a right cross at the bag, sticks her tongue out at it and gives it a raspberry.

“Hey, Carley, I want you to spar with Woo-Woo today,” Clem says of Cerresso, whom people have called Woo-Woo since he was an infant. “Help him get ready for the fight.”

In the past few days, Clem has worked the phones to get a few of his guys on an amateur fight card at some bar in Blaine. Clem’s never been there before, and he’s not sure about the other gyms sending fighters, but that’s the way things go. Fights get rumored, scheduled, canceled, moved.

Just finding an opponent for Cerresso is tough. He’s only 15, but he’s a middleweight and a good one at that. He finished second in the national Silver Gloves tournament a year ago, and there are few others close to his age and weight ready or willing to take him on. But at 207 pounds, Carley is willing to step in the ring with anybody. Everyone here sees her as one of the guys.

“What are you wearing those for?” Clem says to Carley, pointing to the hoop earrings in each lobe. “Take those out. And hey, do you have your chest pads on?”

Carley raps her gloves against her sports bra and the plastic discs tucked inside. The earrings come out.

“All right, then,” Clem says. “Let’s get busy.”

Fighting for a Neighborhood

Clem started the gym for the same reason he spent 24 years in St. Paul’s police department — to keep kids off the street.

He first opened B.T. Bombers at Selby Avenue and Dale Street. Former Minnesota Viking defensive back Joey Browner was a partner who financed the venture. The initials in the gym’s name come from their respective surnames. As for Bombers, Clem says, it just sounded cool. Clem went his own way in 1995 and moved Bombers to Thomas Avenue and Arundel Street.

Posters promoting fight cards from years gone by cover the white-painted cinder-block walls. Every fighter has a nickname — The Predator, The Destroyer, El Perko, Peek-a-Boo. In green felt-tipped pen, someone wrote, “Fatigue makes cowards of men.” Carley has added “and women.”

The ring in this gym is so small that someone with long arms could stretch wide and touch two corner posts at once. Long, crisscrossed swaths of duct tape hold together the red canvas floor. Above the ring, leaking water has rotted away huge gaps in the tattered, paper-thin ceiling, as if bombs had fallen through it.

It’s hard to see this place as an improvement, but Clem calls the old gym “a real poop hole.”

“You had to spar with one hand and hold an umbrella with the other,” he says. Gloves and pads were scarce and so were mouth guards. People had to share everything.

It wasn’t uncommon, Clem says, to find drug dealers right in front of the gym. The sight didn’t quite vanish with the move, but Clem always has relied on that vantage to find new boxers.

“Just yesterday, I saw two kids hell-bent for leather fighting in the park. I just let ‘em go until they were finished,” he says. “Then, I walked up and said, “I want to see you in the gym tomorrow.’ I’ll see if they show up.”

Aside from his pension, Clem makes most of his money these days driving groups of seniors to casinos and other entertainment spots in two luxury buses he bought used. The gym isn’t exactly a charity — Clem asks people to pay $57 a year for the right to work out whenever it’s open — but Clem likes to see it as a house of redemption and reclamation.

Shortly after opening at the current spot, a sweet older man named Lee would shuffle in almost every day with the kind of slow-gaited limp some people have after a stroke. Lee attributes the damage to 40 years of boxing. Clem gave him a key to the gym and started paying him $50 a week to baby-sit the place and serve as a sort of honorary coach. The gym gives Lee a community of familiar faces, and he’s often the first to arrive to unlock the place.

Clem never planned it this way, but every coach he’s hired has spent time in jail or prison. Clem had his own bouts of trouble before wearing a uniform, he says.

“I tell them, “Hey, you have a checkered past, but you’ve done your time,’ ” he says. “I ask them, “On paper, are you clean? Are you on probation?’ I want them to be straight with me, but I say, “I’ll take your word and give you a chance.’ “

A Ring of Community

One of the regulars is 17-year-old Hozan, who has the eyes and dark features of Antonio Banderas and swept-back hair that always looks like it came out of a styling book. Hozan thinks he looks Mexican, but he’s from Iraq. He moved here with his family three years ago and fell in with a Hispanic gang before he even knew what a gang was. He just knew that when he was with the Hispanics, the Asians wouldn’t pick fights with him.

Hozan met Cerresso at school. When Cerresso learned about the trouble he was having, he brought Hozan to Bombers. Kids come and go all the time. They hit the bags for a while, but few get serious. Hozan’s not sure he has a future in boxing, but he knows he’s turning 18 in January and is still only a sophomore in high school.

“Reading and writing, I’m real bad at it,” he says. So he puts in an hour here, an hour there, relaxes his mind and feels he’s doing something positive for himself.

Hozan, Cerresso and two other Bombers fighters are supposed to fight the following night on the amateur card in Blaine, and the gym is electric with anticipation. Hozan faces the gym’s lone wall-length mirror and shadow boxes next to Michael, a charismatic 22-year-old who’s checking out the reflection of his well-cut stomach muscles.

Cornell, the coach who regards the gym as his salvation, stands in the center of the ring with his forearms tucked into thick yellow pads. He holds the pads up to a young fighter who delivers a combination of punches.

“Ah, you gotta give me more than that,” Cornell says.

Cornell is 45, and for now, Bombers is the most solid element of his life. Clem pays him $100 every week for his coaching work and for holding down the gym when Clem’s gone. Clem also lets him spend the night whenever he needs to, and Cornell needs the gym’s roof more often than is comfortable for his pride.

To keep his head above water, Cornell works as a DJ at a VFW club and sells his plasma twice a week. Cornell repays Clem’s trust with fierce loyalty to the gym and its boxers and a determination to work as a positive force in the lives of kids who walk through the gym’s doors. When Clem puts a fighter in the ring, Cornell is usually in the corner.

“Boxing’s about life, about what you do when you get knocked down, when you lose, about picking yourself back up and standing tall,” Cornell says. “But I think all the neighborhood kids that come in here are already champions. Look at the riffraff they had to walk past just to get here.”

Ready to Rumble

About 200 people, all of them white, are meandering around the fenced back yard of the Dugout Bar, seated in aluminum folding chairs or at wooden picnic tables lined with half-empty bottles of Bud. The scene resembles a family barbecue. In the middle of all this, about 6 feet off the ground, is a boxing ring that looks official enough.

The audience is buzzing. After some hasty weigh-ins and cursory lookovers by the ring doctor, the boxers are ready. It’s time to fight.

“All right, Hozan, you gotta initiate first,” Cornell says as Hozan steps through the ropes and into the ring. “Be first, be first, be first. The only thing that hits you tonight is the mosquitoes.”

But throughout the fight, Hozan isn’t first, and he loses a three-round unanimous decision.

Next up is Michael, who shakes off a hometown favorite and a crowd cheering his every punch to win a unanimous decision.

But now it’s Cerresso’s turn, and the interest of the whole place is piqued. He says “a silent prayer that’s between me and God” and climbs onto the canvas.

Pearl, two of Cerresso’s aunts and one of his cousins start a chant: “Let’s go, Woo-Woo, let’s go!” About a minute into the first round, Cerresso sneaks a left jab through his opponent’s gloves and rocks his head back. Cerresso doesn’t follow up the punch, but it doesn’t matter. During the break after Round 1, the ring announcer informs the audience that Cerresso was a national Silver Gloves runner-up. His opponent throws in the towel.

The ride home is full of laughter and detailed recaps of the evening’s glories.

Michael had spent most of the ride up sleeping on the floor at the back of the bus. Now, he won’t shut up. He’s talking about too many women who want him, how he’s really a religious man and how the devil uses all these women to tempt his soul.

A girl who came along for the ride is coming on hard to Michael, and he fends her off with a smile.

“I just say to a girl, “Hey, if you wanna love me, you gotta love God first,’ ” he says.

Hozan leans his head against the side of the bus and loses himself in thought as the chatter whirls around him.

“Why you sad, Hozan? I thought you won,” Michael tells him.

“Hey, pick yourself up,” Cornell yells from the front of the bus. “You fought hard. The other guy just fought a little harder. Hey, you’ll get him next time.”

Cerresso’s grandmother stands up. “You want me to come back there and kiss you?” Pearl says to Hozan. “You want sugar from Granny?”

Everyone on the bus is laughing. Hozan smiles, just a little, but looks like he’s about to cry. Cerresso stretches an arm around his shoulder. It’s getting late, and the chatter simmers. Hozan’s big, brown eyes fix on the darkness outside the bus window.